Worlds apart

Living in a rural village offers a unique glimpse of two starkly contrasting images of Zambia. Sleek, late-model BMWs slide silently along the tarmac past barefoot women in chitenges balancing hand-woven baskets of dried cassava roots on their heads. University-educated teachers at the school with their government salaries earn ten times more than the rest of their neighbors in the village, casually watching soap operas in their sheetrocked houses on TVs that can be heard but not seen from the mud huts next door. They are parallel worlds which exist side by side and yet could not be further apart.

When I traveled down from my site to the provincial capital last week for Mini Provs, I witnessed the effect of this juxtaposition on a larger scale. Everywhere in Mansa were people sharply dressed in Western-style clothes, people talking into cell phones, people driving by in cars. We lined up at the ATM outside the bank alongside government employees who received paychecks at the end of the month, many of them, like us, migrating in from the outlying rural districts. For every person who stared or did a double-take upon seeing me, another just glanced briefly and continued on her way. My muzungu appeal had lost its luster. I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

One morning I wandered around Mansa looking to sell a spare phone I didn’t need. I fielded various lowball offers from street vendors with a wide grin, eventually finding a well-fed man presiding over a table bristling with cell phones on the corner of a busy intersection. We haggled over the price until a woman standing behind him gave a nod of assent and he agreed to buy it for 80 kwacha. The dealer peeled a K100 bill from a thick roll of cash in his wallet, handed it to me, and I gave him back a twenty along with the phone. When I buy a 50-ngwee (K0.5) bunch of Chinese cabbage from the bamayos in my village, they don’t have enough change to break a two-pin note.

Connections do still exist between the two worlds, even if the links are largely unseen. On Friday morning I went to the post office with Eddie and Lucas to pick up several packages that had arrived for volunteers. Post offices are tedious affairs no matter where you are, so I had no illusions of getting in and out in a hurry. As we waited, Eddie pointed out the money transfer sign on the counter and explained that the people in line ahead of us were sending portions of their newly-acquired paychecks to less-privileged family elsewhere in the country. Family who probably lived in villages like ours.

We eventually reached the counter where we signed a stack of customs forms before hoisting the parcels onto our shoulders and exiting the crowded lobby. I offered an apologetic smile to the man glaring impatiently in line behind us. As we walked back to the house, I imagined friends and family on the opposite side of the world waiting in similar lines in places like Springfield, Missouri and Fishers, Indiana. Paying the United States Postal Service a small fortune to ship cookies, candy, and deodorant to volunteers who are learning every day just how privileged they are.

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3 thoughts on “Worlds apart

  1. Good observations about wealth distribution and its ramifications. I’ve often wondered about the impact of introducing a cash economy into a traditional society.

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